The whole thing happens so quickly, after Trevor Gott’s arm flies back. He turns and loads, then seems to skip straight to following through, his arm a flash. Suddenly, the ball is gone, at 95 mph or so, a high-powered fastball leaping from the slight frame of a 23-year-old the Washington Nationals hope will be a staple of their bullpen for years to come.
The Nationals acquired Gott, 23, and fellow right-hander Michael Brady from the Los Angeles Angels in December, in exchange for infielder Yunel Escobar and cash. More often than not, all things being equal, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and his staff target big-bodied pitchers, tall guys with long arms and the leverage that comes with them, big kids with the potential to get bigger. Gott, for his part, measures six feet tall by the friendliest of yardsticks, with a slim build one might not assume would yield so much power.
“He’s got a good arm,” Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said. “I’d heard about him. He’s got a quick arm, too.”
That quick arm yielded an average fastball velocity of 96.2 mph last season, seventh-fastest among qualified major-league rookie relievers. No one in the Nationals bullpen averaged more than 95.4.
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“He throws hard,” said Nationals catcher Spencer Kieboom, who played with Gott on the Mesa Solar Sox in the 2014 Arizona Fall League. “When that ball comes out of his hand, it’s alive.”
Gott has long thrown hard enough to stand out. He was a local youth baseball legend in Lexington, a star of a team that made it to the 2005 Cal Ripken Under-12 World Series, at one point Gott striking out nine batters in three innings. He then dominated at Tates Creek High School, where Kentucky Coach Gary Henderson saw him for the first time.
“We’d heard there’s a really good player in town. You know, there’s one of those in every town in America, so that in and of itself wasn’t really a big deal,” Henderson said. “But (it was) to see him in ninth grade and to see this guy you know is gonna be a very, very solid high school player.”
The right-hander continued to impress Henderson from there, striking out 76 batters in 47 1/3 innings as a senior, when he was named Kentucky’s 2010 Gatorade player of the year. But even while Gott was excelling as a starter, he says he was not really pitching. “Just throwing,” he said. “Throwing hard.”
Without much secondary stuff — he had never needed any — Gott struggled when he first got to Kentucky, and his limited repertoire ultimately led Henderson to convert him into a reliever. Nonetheless, that first fall, with Gott still throwing and still relying on that fastball, the Wildcats’ veterans hit him well.
“It was a shock,” Gott said. “It had never happened to me. I was kind of freaking out, thinking, ‘Do I belong here?’
“I went to the coach, sat down. He talked to me, and he said I just had to get to work. We did.”
Along came the curveball, and a two-seamer that ran well from Gott’s arm slot, allowing him to change planes and break while still throwing hard. He headed to the Cape Cod League the next summer and was named 2011 reliever of the year. Little by little, Henderson remembered, Gott buffed pure throwing into pitching and grew into his new role.
“I loved [relieving]. I thought it fit,” Gott said. “… It was just comfortable. I think people just have that (comfort closing). It’s not taught. You just have it.”
Gott went on to set a school record for saves in 2012. Neither loud nor overtly quirky, as some closing-types are, Gott said he gets “excited” but not “overly pumped up.”
“We spent a lot of time talking about poise,” Henderson said. “I think he tried to exhibit the things he thought were important. But he was pretty intense. We got a pretty big picture of him up in our hitting facility after a win, showing a bunch of emotion. It’s still there.”
San Diego selected Gott in the sixth round of the 2013 draft, and he climbed the ranks for a year or so within the Padres’ organization before being traded to the Angels in July 2014 along with Huston Street, another slightly built closer. Gott made his major-league debut last season and appeared in 48 games, many of them late in the season. He was 4-2 with a 3.02 ERA.
As the Nationals assess their reconstructed bullpen this spring, Gott might jump out as a potentially key component, a complement to more accuracy-dependent righties such as Jonathan Papelbon, Shawn Kelley and Yusmeiro Petit.
Gott said he hopes to improve his change-up, which he hardly used last season, and continue to hone that curveball. But if he makes the Nationals’ bullpen this season, and if he then makes an impact, it will be because of that fastball — the one he threw 84.4 percent of the time last season, more than any other rookie reliever in baseball.